Alejandro Amenábar went 15 years without making a feature in Spain, and his first such since the excellent “The Sea Inside” is notable not only for being a 20th-century Spanish history lesson, but also for providing a particularly timely anti-fascist message. “While at War” is a handsomely mounted drama about the start of the Franco regime, and how it came to seal Spain’s future — rather like a tomb — for nearly 40 years.
Climaxing in a famous speech of protest from literary lion Miguel de Unamuno, this is a worthy enterprise that errs on the side of caution, carrying the slightly stale whiff of awards-bait cinema in which greatness is frequently signaled but inspiration somehow lacking. Though surely due a certain amount of international travel, it’s unlikely to stir the kind of critical or viewer excitement needed to make this political back-chapter enticing to audiences outside Spanish-speaking territories.
To an extent, Amenábar and co-writer Alejandro Hernandez are hemmed in by the perspective of their protagonist (played by Karra Elejalde), an esteemed author and philosopher then considered by some “Spain’s greatest writer” — including the Nationalist leadership who deemed him patriotic and non-controversial enough to bestow that title upon. (When the story begins here, Unamuno is as yet unaware that their forces have most likely assassinated his now better-remembered colleague, Federico García Lorca.) A former sometime socialist, he had clashed with the powers-that-be before, even getting forced into exile for a while in the 1920s. But at this 1936 juncture, he appeared sympathetic enough to the military junta that has just seized control, at least insofar as he hesitated to criticize it openly.
That reluctance frustrates his best friends in Salamanca, younger fellow professor Salvator (Carlos Serrano-Clark) and Protestant pastor Atilano (Luis Zahera). They think he should use his prestige as the local university’s dean and a celebrated intellectual to decry the violence and oppression erupting all around them. But Unamuno here is frail, tired and nearly as wary of the Republican left as he is of the militarized right. Even when these friends are themselves arrested for little or no reason, he hopes somehow reason will prevail.
But there is little reasoning with the uneducated fascist thugs running amok in uniform, or indeed with their illustrious leaders. Unamuno finally realizes that when he demands an audience with General (not yet Generalissimo) Franco, portrayed here by Santi Prego as a seemingly passive, even timid military careerist who’s himself terribly afraid of making “the wrong move.” Yet somehow it is he who gets pushed forward by the other generals — particularly vain, blustering, possibly psychotic Millan-Astray (Eduard Fernández) — to become the absolute chief of what had been initially intended as a collectively led government.
“While at War” is named after a clause that would have reined in Franco’s power considerably, but was removed from his regime charter. Another high official warns that if this “little fox” is put in control, “he won’t let go until he dies” — which is exactly what happened, leaving Spain an isolated dictatorship until 1975. When the ailing Unamuno pleads for his friends’ freedom, he realizes from Franco’s bland, soulless response that they’re already doomed — as is any hope of a Spain that might win freedom from civil war.
While smoothly handled, Amenabar’s film is somewhat awkwardly caught between two elements. On one hand, it’s an intimate, fond lion-in-winter seriocomedy, in which a great man gone slightly crusty tries to slink towards eternity without too much fussing from his bothersome friends and family. On the other, it’s a fairly large-scale, elaborate portrait of a catastrophic historical moment when Spain succumbed to the siren song of fascism (with visiting officials from Nazi Germany as a pressuring chorus).
With its overall structure and individual scenes a little too neatly turned to hit those contrasting notes, “While at War” ends up feeling rather pat in one aspect and one-dimensional in another. It’s insufficiently moving as character-driven piece, but also lacks the urgency and suspense needed to make larger events vivid. You can feel Amenábar and his collaborators trying to jury-rig a balance in one over-calculated sequence after another. We can always see exactly what they’re going for, and the practiced skill behind it, but the emotional impact is seldom there.
Nonetheless, this is more a moderate disappointment than a misfire, being so accomplished in all departments that the whole flows seamlessly, at least on the surface — even as we glimpse those seams underneath. All tech and design contributions are first-rate, bringing to convincing life an attractive world of yesteryear, albeit one whose immediate fate ought to trouble us more than it does here.